March 3, 2020 § Leave a comment
While suspended from a harness in a Plexiglas box, the Montreal artist made a big impression – and a mess – at the Gardiner Museum
BY ROSEMARY HEATHER MARCH 2, 2020
How hard is it to scape raw clay off the walls of a plexiglass box while suspended from a harness? Very hard, judging by artist Cassils performance at the city’s Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art on February 20. For 90-minutes, Cassils swung themselves against the confines of a 10 x 10 box, moving to different levels within the space with the help of a theatrical rigger.
Visitors to the sold-out performance initially could only hear the sounds – grunts and hard breathing – of Cassils at work. Gradually the artist became visible through the clay-smeared apertures they made with their hands. Visibility was the point, with Cassils being the stand-in for the trans body in public consciousness. During the performance, it was easy to see how the audience becomes a stand-in for society at large.
The performance is part of the exhibition RAW, opening on March 5 at the Gardiner. Unfired clay is the medium for work by artists Magdolene Dykstra, Azza El Siddique and Linda Swanson, along with the performance by Cassils, the remnants of which will be on view in the gallery.
In person, Cassils is an imposing presence. They are of modest height (about 5-foot-6) but packed with muscle. Not surprising for someone who has worked as a stunt person and semi-pro boxer, and who runs a personal training business in Los Angeles. Originally from Montreal, Cassils attended California Institute of the Arts and went on to build a powerhouse art career that includes international recognition, gallery representation in New York City and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
NOW spoke with the artist at the Gardiner Museum the day after their performance.
As a viewer, looking in and hoping to see more as your performance progressed, I felt self conscious about the role I was playing as a voyeur. This faded, however, and I became invested in your efforts to remove the clay. Is that because as we see more of you it becomes easier to identify with you as a whole person?
It’s hard for me to be succinct about the thesis of the work since it’s the first time I performed it. I am making the audience’s act of looking performative, not just being an experience of passive enjoyment. They are going through a process of witnessing my struggle. There is a fascination with the trans identity. In the performance, I am both enacting and denying this dynamic.
I hadn’t before done a work where there was a barrier between me and the audience. At first, this cut my energy. But I see this as an expression of trans isolation. We are in this heightened moment of trans visibility. But without systemic change, it puts the trans body at risk. I am a white, middle-class trans person. I don’t represent the most stigmatized trans people. This is one reason why I trouble visibility.
The body obscured in the performance is a form of resistance to examination. But another element of the work is the way it puts you in control, are you doing this to reverse that dynamic?
No. I don’t feel in control. I am attached to a rope, controlled by someone who I can’t control. When I am upside down, there are straps in my harness that… if they press on my femoral artery for too long, I will die. I don’t have a lot of control over my velocity when I am swinging. I also have the responsibility to make a connection with the audience. The burden of representation is on me – the responsibility to make the work, and to connect with my audience.
The performance evokes a number of artists. I really thought about certain works by Yoko Ono, and especially Cy Twombly.
When I’m pulling the clay off the wall, I’m throwing it on the ground to create a platform I can stand on. When it’s high enough, the performance ends. Most of my work is about the indexical. Clay picks up every gesture. In the process of making the platform beneath me, I’m throwing the clay on the ground, and each time you can see the negative space of my fist. Doing this in a ceramics museum, it’s about self making and embodiment. It’s also about making a mess.
In one of your works, Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture, you gained 23 pounds of muscle in 23 weeks. I consulted a fairly technical article on bodybuilding.com about muscle gain. Turns out, gaining one pound of muscle per week is pretty much the optimum a bodybuilder can hope for. Sustained over 23 weeks, it’s an incredible feat. Did you do this bodybuilding to make yourself into an object?
It’s not bodybuilding. I was responding to a 1972 work by Eleanor Antin, Carving: A Traditional Sculpture, in which she crash diets and documents the effect on her body. She documents performing an act of starvation. In 2011, when I did this work, there was very little awareness of trans identity. I identify as trans-masculine, not non-binary. I don’t believe I need to have a double mastectomy to be trans. I am an athlete and have my own personal training business. I think of my body as both an instrument and an image. To do this performance, I had to lay off the weight training and focus on my core flexibility. This is part of the vocabulary I am working with.
Looking at my snapshots of the performance, I was surprised to see how painterly they are. This is a thread that runs through all your work: becoming image. Formally, the work is very strong, very legible. Since all of it revolves around your body, are you making art as a pretext for circulating images of a powerful trans body?
Yes. I was trained as a painter. My work is always a material exploration; a tremendous goal of the work is formal investigation. I use a formal language that isn’t didactic; though it is still complicated, it can’t just be a clean read. Right now, I am working on something about for-profit immigration detention centres. That needs to be didactic.
July 19, 2018 § Leave a comment
Including Rebecca Belmore at the AGO, an exhibition all about islands and rotating installations by furniture designer Patty Johnson
Feeling the heat? For temporary relief look to a number of summer-long exhibitions currently on view in the climate-controlled quiet of Toronto art galleries. At their most serious and pointed, art shows create an opportunity to think though the pressing issues of our time. Toronto art institutions frequently provide an influential take on this potential, some of them framing a conversation — about Indigenous issues, for instance — they are helping to lead internationally.
DIAGRAMS OF POWER, OCAD ONSITE GALLERY
July 11-September 30
An exhibition in OCAD’s flagship professional gallery that posits maps, diagrams and other forms of data visualization as the best way to understand the complexity of 21st-century geopolitics. Featuring works by the Anishinaabe art collective Ogimaa Mikana; monumental history painter, Julie Mehretu; and the controversial 2018 Turner Prize nominees, Forensic Architecture, this show is essential viewing for thinking about what representation looks like in a networked world.
A VIEWING ROOM V. 3, SUSAN HOBBS GALLERY
June 21-August 10
This is the third edition of the gallery’s yearly summer look at the intersections between art and design. A rotating series of installations puts the work of furniture designer Patty Johnson in dialogue with art from the gallery’s collection. Toronto-educated Johnson works all over the world and is known for her projects with developing countries to create sustainable design projects for local industries.
ISLAND[S], ART MUSEUM U OF T
July 25-August 18
Visit this gallery and enjoy the oasis of green that is King’s College Circle at the heart of U of T’s downtown campus. This show’s curator, Julie René de Cotret, suggests the island as an apt metaphor for the way artworks solicit our focused attention. Combines work by a selection of younger and emerging artists with that of Michael Snow, the celebrated Canadian artist who has made significant works that frame, parse and contemplate the Canadian landscape throughout his career.
COMMUNITY ART SPACE: RECENT HISTORIES, GARDINER MUSEUM
July 5-September 17
Thanks to its Community Art Space free summer program, now in its third year, this museum dedicated to the ceramic arts is enjoying an enhanced profile amongst Toronto art audiences. Driven by the mission of creating space within the venue for temporary exhibitions and performance-based work, the Gardiner partners with a range of artists, collectives and community groups to present events that tell the stories of the hugely diverse populations that make up this city.
REBECCA BELMORE: FACING THE MONUMENTAL, ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO
July 12-October 21
More and more, Canada is acknowledged as leading the global conversation about Indigenous issues in art. This major presentation of the West Coast Anishinaabe artist’s work adds to the dialogue. Presenting art from across Belmore’s career, the show features the artist’s powerful figurative sculptural works, photography and documentation from her trademark performance practice.
ELLEN GALLAGHER – NU-NILE; GRADA KILOMBA – SECRETS TO TELL; ABBAS AKHAVAN – VARIATIONS ON A LANDSCAPE, THE POWER PLANT
June 23-September 3 (Gallagher and Kilomba); June 23-December 30 (Akhavan)
Here is a venue with the added advantage of being next to the lake. Under the direction of Gaëtane Verna, the Power Plant is building a strong track record presenting exhibitions by people of colour. The show presents the internationally renowned Gallagher’s first solo exhibition of paintings in Canada. Also features the 2015 Sobey Art Award winner, Akhavan, who is enjoying increasing recognition abroad, and Portuguese artist, Kilomba, presenting work about the African diaspora.
Published in NOW Magazine, JULY 18, 2018